Saturday, 21 December 2019

Thomas Becket icon made by Alice Wilcock

The feast of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury falls on the day of his death, which was 29th December 1170. 

But today, December 21st, was his birthday — and he was born in 1119, so nine hundred years ago today — which is why we chose this day rather than his feast day to bless the icon of Thomas Becket our Alice has made.

It's not a traditionally made Orthodox icon, but is made according to her own design and methods, but it is of sacred making and she is a person of faith. In the same way, our blessing ceremony did not use the form of words from the Orthodox Church, but was a liturgy of our own household.

This is the icon Alice made:

His attire is based on vestments from Sens Cathedral, that belonged to Thomas Becket. His orphrey is depicted in white gold (in icon vernacular, gold carries the same meaning as white). Red robes are traditional in depicting Thomas, because the manner of his martyrdom was so bloody. Green is also the colour of martyrs, so Alice has used green in the stone in the sword and in the design on his chasuble.

The sword through Thomas's head represents the way he was murdered; the staff and episcopal cross he carries are because he was an archbishop.

The icon, painted in egg tempura on a water gilded gold background, is intended to be highly decorative, because Thomas loved exquisite craftsmanship and had a taste for opulence and luxury, which, incorporated with his shrewd management skills, led to a substantial accumulation of wealth.

His appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was politically motivated out of personal interest by King Henry, but this backfired spectacularly when Thomas's attitude underwent a dramatic transformation. In our icon, the pall — a woollen cloth made by nuns, to remind bishops of the Christian imperative of humility — is shown very prominently, as Alice believes he took seriously this aspect of his calling as an archbishop.

The description of Thomas that Alice worked with, in designing the icon, came from an Icelandic saga, probably deriving from Robert of Cricklade's Vita, and ran as follows:
Slim of growth and pale of hue, with dark hair, a long nose and a straightly featured face. Blithe of countenance was he, winning and loveable in his conversation, frank of speech in his discourses, but slightly stuttering in his talk, so keen of discernment and understanding that he could always make difficult questions plain after a wise manner.

He wore hair cloth next to his skin, then stamin (coarse wool) over a black cowl, then the white cowl in which he was consecrated. He also wore his tunic and dalmatic, his chasuble, pall and mitre. The design on the mitre and the chasuble in Alice's icon are based on those in the mitre and chasuble actually belonging to Thomas.

Below the waist, Thomas wore drawers of sackcloth and, over those, others of linen. His socks were made of wool and he wore sandals on his feet.

This is the first icon Alice has made starting from scratch with her own design and concept (as distinct from following someone else's design under tuition), and she says she hopes next time to get the gilding more perfectly even.

We blessed the icon in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with living water from the spring at the bottom of the hill, and marked it with the sign of the cross with Boswellia sacra oil, both of which (water and oil) we blessed in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

On the cover of our blessing ceremony, you can see his halo was not yet painted in. As is the custom, Alice left that to be the last thing she painted before we blessed it.

Here is the form of words we used for our ceremony of blessing:

All things are connected.

The mystery passes through us
that is also in the movement of rivers,
in murmurations of birds,
in the shaping of snowflakes
and the course of the stars.
It is also found in the work of human hands,
Touching the mystery of clay and wood, of pigment and precious metal.

The mystery has its own power and its own wisdom.
When we find our true nature,
when we connect with each other
and with who were were born to be,
then meaning flows, healing,
and things become beautiful.

Everything that is becomes an icon of mystery,
shines like burnished gold with the beauty of light,
communicates the wisdom and power
of mystery often hidden, always there.

Now we step into the circle of power and wisdom;
we claim our place in the web of being,
the matrix of blessing,
the flow of making and mending.

We give thanks for Thomas Becket:
his courage,
his willingness to speak truth to power,
his shrewd and capable management skills.
May these qualities become ours too;
But with that give us diplomacy, and kindness, and discretion.
May we learn from Thomas
what to choose and what to avoid.

We bring our icon to God
And place it reverently in our gathered circle.

In the name of the Maker,
May it be holy and blessed;
May our lives also be holy and blessed.

In the name of the Mender,
May it be a source of healing;
May our lives also be a source of healing.

In the name of the Mystery,
May it quietly tell a story of wisdom;
May our lives also quietly tell the story of wisdom.


Thomas is now in residence on the shelf in our living room from his birthday today until his Feast on December 29th, at which point he returns to his regular home in Alice's room.


greta said...

i am simply stunned (literally got goose-bumps!) at the beauty and mystery that this icon expresses. not only is alice blessed with great skill but she is also so transparent that the spirit moves right through her and into the icon. deep thanks to alice for sharing her gift with all of us.

Suzan said...

This is beautiful. I also learned more.Tahnk you.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Greta, Hi Suzan — thank you, friends.



The Rev. Susan Creighton said...

Exquisite art and prayer. O, Lord, your people suffer now from the arrogance of rulers. Send us men and women with the courage and wisdom of Thomas Becket to speak truth in our own day. Amen.

Pen Wilcock said...

Amen. And may we have time for amendment of life, in Jesus' Name. Amen.


Sandra Ann said...

Such a beautiful icon and I love the prayers of blessing. As a family you make the most of those talents entrusted to you by God and in so doing the world is greatly blessed xx

Pen Wilcock said...


Happy Christmas to you and your beautiful family, San. x

Julie B. said...

I agree with Greta. Simply stunning and deeply moving. xoxo

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, my friend — thank you — waving! x